Would you kindly choose to read this essay about Final Fantasy 6?
The World of Ruin of Final Fantasy 6 is all about freedom. In the previous five Final Fantasy games, there was often a point where you reached... let's call it... the end of the world, and...
... Wait. No, that doesn't work. Errm...
Well, every Final Fantasy is a finite adventure, and eventually you reach its finale. And, regardless of whether there is a hell emperor or space bug skulking around, you the player reach a point where you've seen everything, and have been everywhere. Traditionally, this somehow coincides with earning your "final" airship, whether that be some kind of moon whale or the simple ability to land on unusual tiles. Or maybe the world itself has been fully revealed! Whatever! The point is that there is a "final" point where you have seemingly infinite freedom... but you've seen it all. You can go anywhere on the planet, which includes the two "bonus" dungeons left, or a magic shop you might have missed outside the bounds of a town.
In other words, you have the freedom of choice on a global scale, but no actual choices to make.
The Final Fantasy immediately preceding Final Fantasy 6 was, naturally,
Final Fantasy Extreme
Final Fantasy 5. The final act of that game presented a "brand new world" with unique challenges, an almost immediate airship, and the option of raiding the final dungeon super early. But, like in previous Final Fantasy games, the actual progression of that "world" was less about choice and more about following the traditional upgrade line. The ancient weapons must be collected in order thanks to airship/catapult shenanigans, and, while there are some optional areas about, there is very little to distinguish this general progression from choosing between initially defeating Kary or Tiamat. The whole "final world" scenario of Final Fantasy 5 offered a general illusion of choice (you can always fight the tree! He's right there in his tree hole!), but it was just that: an illusion. A fantasy.
Final Fantasy 6's World of Ruin initially follows the same general beats as Final Fantasy 5's changed planet: you are alone, and things are confusing. At least one blonde is despairing over a lost world. Over time, you assemble an incomplete party, see a few sights from the new world, and get a little bit of a grip on the place. Then you have your airship, the enemy stronghold is immediately available over there, but you know you have things to do before that to plump up your party's options. The significant difference in Final Fantasy 6, though, is that you truly do have the freedom to do (almost) anything from the minute you start searching for friends. You want to raid Kefka's Follower's Tower for treasure? Go for it. Make a beeline for Mog and his encounter-canceling charm? All yours! You can equally dive into a town of children or a sandworm's clown-filled stomach. Even the trail of Cyan being presented as your next available party member after earning the airship goes cold after he leads you to Gau/The Veldt/Whoever-is-Behemoth-Chow. But even without obvious plot steps, there is not a single character or sidequest in Final Fantasy 6 that cannot be found thanks to a clue from an NPC. You have freedom, and, if you pay attention, you will have no doubt where you have to go.
As everybody who has played Final Fantasy 6 knows, you have no choice at all in the World of Ruin when it comes to your party. Give or take "a challenge run", no one who has ever understood how a videogame works has ever given up on a single party member. You know your original party of twelve is out there somewhere, and you will
catch 'em all before the final showdown. Triangle Island's favorite son/daughter might be a little esoteric, but can you honestly tell me someone is going to ditch Relm and leave her to paint in some frog's basement for the rest of her days? Or you'll just ignore those thieves on the Veldt all but shouting at you to "form a party of three to find Gau"? No. You're going to reclaim your friends just as surely as you guided Sabin back from the afterlife. Even if you never plan to add Umaro's berserker rage to your active party, if you have the slightest inkling that brute exists, you're going to recruit him. To claim you would do anything else is folly.
The World of Ruin isn't unfettered freedom of choice, it's a checklist.
So where is there true choice in this blighted world? Well, it's sitting in this hovel...
I hate this guy. This jerk would give Stanislav Petrov choice paralysis.
Let me explain for anyone that managed to miss this geriatric petitioner of Solomon: sometime after the fall of the world, one of Narshe's two last remaining humans found a chunk of magicite (or he always had it, and was holding out for the first half of the game). He could just hand over the magicite like every other magicite in the game, but, no, he used to run a weapon shop, so he offers to transform the magicite into a sword. However! This is a one-time choice, so you cannot return later to forge that sword anew, nor can you ever un-sword this magic rock after it has been created. This is a one-time deal, and you have to make the choice practically as soon as you unlock his front door.
(Come to think of it... you never do lock his door again after you leave. I wonder if he was eaten by gigantic pink wolves moments after you left. I wonder why that thought makes me happy...)
Here is your pros and cons list:
+ The only magicite that teaches Ultima, the unequalled best spell in the game
+ Anyone can use it
+ Allows for the Ragnarok summon, which can be used to farm rare items
+ Means you'll have a complete list of Espers (Give or take Odin/Raiden)
- Ultima is great, but there are 70 different ways to do 9999 damage in this game
- Ultima can be found elsewhere for a significant time cost
+ 2nd best sword in the game
+ Phenomenal critical hit chance (albeit fueled by MP)
+ May cast a free charge of Flare
+ Can be "traded" for the completely unique, absolutely best sword in the game
- Not everyone can equip/utilize a sword
- Of those that can use swords, maybe two would actually benefit from the equipment in a significant way
- If you are a complete moron, you can accidentally Throw, sell, or otherwise trash either sword
In the end, my personal opinion is that there is no clear and obvious winner in the original release. Ultima is great, but you can put in the time and earn it elsewhere if you really need it. Ragnarok - Illumina/Light Bringer is something to behold when you max out offensive capability with a Genji Glove & Offering/Master's Scroll. Either option gets you murdering Kefka flunkies with inspiring panache, and either option has alternatives, too. It might not be as one-and-done to dispel a cursed shield or pump up Sabin's magic to properly bum rush his opponents, but you've got options.
And that's the issue here: you've got options. You can only choose one option. That's horrifying
Which is odd, because otherwise, Final Fantasy 6 is cowardly when it comes to actual choices. Fatally so...
Shadow is the aloof ninja of the cast. In replaying FF6, I was shocked to realize that Shadow can be almost a complete stranger over the course of the game. You "name him" in South Figaro, but he does not join the party at this time. He can
join Sabin on his quest across the Doma Kingdom, but it is equally possible he will leave the party literally after one battle. Even if he sticks around through the Phantom Train, he is never involved in the Sabin-Cyan buddy comedy hijinks, and increasingly feels like an afterthought. He can again join the party in the quest for a missing Terra, but that requires almost precognitive-level planning, and all but guarantees you will miss out on some fun world building with other characters for the sake of "guy that throws stuff". It is only when he is finally required in Thamasa that he actively does something (saving Relm/"you" from a burning building), but that is also a part of the game where he is only a member of the active party for the walk from the boat to town. The end result is that Shadow is a nobody when he joins you for the Floating Continent, and his turn as "I will try to repair the only thing holding this world together,
you guys run" is a genuine surprise (if you didn't have Nintendo Power or knowledge of "assassin with a heart of gold" tropes... or even just naturally accepted anybody that likes dogs more than people). And whether or not you wait for Shadow... well, it's a choice with consequences. If you leave Shadow to die, he will die-die, and that's the last you see of Clyde. If you wait for him until the literal last second, he will be saved, and live to see the World of Ruin.
Which... uh... makes his life worse?
Shadow in the World of Ruin gets wrecked by a behemoth. You save him, and he is taken back to Thamasa to recover, as Strago is the only party member that owns a bed that is not haunted (go ahead and do the math on that one. It checks out). Shadow experiences a bout of PTSD at waking up in Thamasa, walks out, and decides to go back to fighting for money and/or swords. Offer the right sword as a prize, and you can beat him into joining back up with the old gang to fight Kefka. He then experiences exactly zero character development (Gau at least gets to buy a suit!), hangs out with the party for a handful of adventures, and then aids in the attack on Kefka. Upon literally saving the world, he apparently decides to take advantage of the chaos of the tower collapsing to straight up die. He perishes lamenting a dead friend, and leaves his dog and daughter behind to a world that is marginally less destroyed than it was immediately after his failure at statue moving.
Shadow can kinda ambiguously die off screen while attempting to save the world.
Shadow can kinda ambiguously die off screen immediately after his friends saved the world.
And if he lives for an extra year in between, he didn't seem to accomplish all that much. Probably ruined Siegfried's day at the coliseum once or twice, and that's about it. You can use that role playing thing to believe he was an integral party member in such events as the Phoenix Cave or Hidon's Island, but, even among the "optional" events of FF6, Shadow does not show any growth or change. He has some bad dreams here and there, and that's the best he can hope for. Lore, but no learning.
So, once again, there is no choice at all. Though we have not yet been blessed by a Final Fantasy 6-2: Gogo's Adlai Years, if there were a Final Fantasy 6 sequel, we know the writers wouldn't have to address the player choice of Shadow. Whether or not they wanted to give the dude a grave or reveal he secretly survived his presumed deaths, he would be the exact same character with the exact same fate regardless of player choice. You have some wiggle room with whether or not Gau ever met his father, or if the party ever explored the "secret" War of the Magi castle beneath Figaro desert, but we know for certain that Shadow suffered a sad, lonely death whether you gotta wait for Shadow or not.
A fondly remembered icon of Final Fantasy 6, and he had less options available than a rock.
rock, of course, but still a rock.
But if this nonsense is coming to a point, it is this: that's just how I like it
I've said this before, but I play videogames to enjoy myself. While this seems like an obvious statement, the corollary is that I do not play videogames to be punished for making terrible decisions. On a daily basis, going all the way back to my childhood (when Final Fantasy 6 was released!), I have had to make decisions, and some of those decisions could have consequences with long tails. I do not choose to get married or start a new career on a daily basis, but I often choose whether or not to start a "project" that has the potential to go nowhere, or if I should offer a friend some advice that could be terrible for both of us. Videogames are so much easier: if you choose to fight the bad guy, you are inevitably impacting that world in a positive way. In fact, you cannot even "choose" to fight the bad guy, because thou must, lest time itself doesn't pass for your heroes. You will
do the right thing, or you just turn the game off.
So, in this way, I know I am always making the right choice and always advancing in Final Fantasy 6. Choosing to learn this esper magic is not going to lock me out of that other magic, and wholesale slaughtering cactuars is not going to lead to some ecological destruction just because I needed more magic points for Meltdown. There is no morality, no "builds" to worry about: just do you want to put your party back together or not? And of course you do! That's why you're playing the game! You can skip all those Super Mario Bros. 3 worlds with a warp whistle, but you're only hurting yourself by playing less Mario
. You want to play through these dungeons. You want to fight these bosses. You may never add Cyan back to your team again, but do you really want to skip that whole optional quest where you get to pilot magitek armor again for three screens? Of course not! Get in the dream robot, Shinji!
So I feel like I can see behind the curtain, and understand why I liked Final Fantasy 6 from the time I was twelve. The whole World of Ruin offers the illusion of choice, which feels unerringly empowering, but there are really no choices at all. And that's great! Because I secretly hate choice, and apparently wish my life was controlled by a magical despot that had some kind of "light of judgment" to keep me from making incorrect choices. Neat!
And I guess I'll just start a twitter poll next time I have to choose between rock or sword. Either that, or play the Advance version where I can get both...